My Best Teacher: David Blunkett

4th September 2009 at 01:00
A teacher who gave up one night a week for this politician helped him overcome many hurdles and excel academically

I nominate Wilfred King, not because he was the world's best teacher but because he was the most dedicated and supportive.

I went to what is now the Royal National College for the Blind in Shrewsbury. At the time, we were offered a rounded education but it was thought that we didn't need qualifications. The headteacher, who had a degree and a doctorate, thought the blind didn't need that sort of rigour. Even at 16, I thought that was wrong.

So I went to a local technical college to get my O-levels and A-levels. Mr King gave up one night a week to act as my mentor and support worker at the college. It was a big commitment but I needed his technical help. I'd have floundered without him.

I didn't know anything about university but I knew science was important, so I opted for physics O-level and that's what Mr King helped me with. I should have done biology really, but I drew the line at chemistry in case I blew something up.

By a great miracle, I passed that O-level. I think I used my political skills for the first time, answering questions with sufficient ambiguity so the examiner had to give me the benefit of the doubt.

It took me three years to get six O-levels. Passing the first two really built up my confidence. I realised then that I could make it, and I went on to get three A-levels. I was 22 by the time I got all my qualifications, including a national certificate in business studies. I went on to the University of Sheffield, but it was a long haul.

When I became education secretary, I was determined that other people shouldn't have to face the same hurdles I did. That's why I am such a fierce advocate of adult learning.

None of my family had achieved academically. My father was killed in an industrial accident when I was young, and no one in my family knew how the system worked. I got a lot of my education from reading and listening to the radio.

I had good teachers, though. Mr Rodwell, my history teacher, ingrained in me a love and understanding of the past. That's what got me interested in politics - I loved learning about people who'd struggled and overcome enormous challenges. It also showed me how little people learn from the past. But it was Mr King who really made a difference.

He once accidentally broke my ring finger by bringing a hammer down on a nail that he'd told me to feel. It still hurts sometimes when I talk about it. Maybe he felt a little reparation was required after that.

I kept up with Mr King until a couple of years ago. He was always robust with me, saying: "Well done" but reminding me he wasn't overly impressed. That's a bit Yorkshire, like my mum.

Over the years, I've thanked him and acknowledged his support, but I ignored his advice about not getting too big for my boots. It was the right advice at the wrong time.

When I was younger I needed to believe in myself. I needed some perspiration and aspiration. It was only later in life that I should have reigned myself in a bit.

  • David Blunkett, MP for Sheffield Brightside, is the former education secretary, home secretary and secretary for work and pensions. He currently supports the Football and Schools Together project. He was talking to Hannah Frankel.

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